If you’re tired of all the found footage films, twenty-something quick terrors, or even all the horror rebooting (some good, and some not so good), then perhaps you need something a little different this Halloween. Sometimes you need a well-directed ghost story. Occasionally, you need a bit of horror comedy. Once in awhile you even need an obscure black-and-white creature feature. With that in mind, here are seven horror films that can help make your Halloween a little less ordinary this year.
The Lords of Salem (2012)
There are movies that are creepy and movies that are disturbing, but writer/director Rob Zombie’s film about Salem, Massachusetts and its witchcraft past accomplishes both to great effect. Told in the present with flashbacks to the past, radio disc jockey Heidi LaRoc (Sheri Moon Zombie) plays a record that unleashes the revenge of a coven. Soon LaRoc begins to descend into madness as the town’s dark past reaches into its present. While the film has that low-budget 70s feel, this is a completely different horror film from Zombie’s other excursions. Dark and moody, The Lords of Salem will leave you feeling unnerved and very uncomfortable. Littered with cult horror icons, it’s Jeff Daniel Phillips that really shines as the would-be lover to Moon’s LaRoc. And as is the case with most of Zombie’s work, there is no happy ending in the town of Salem.
Man Of 1000 Faces (1957)
If you’ve ever spent time viewing any of the great Lon Chaney’s silent masterpieces from the phantom, the hunchback or one of the unholy three, you owe it to yourself to watch this essential bio-pic. While not a horror film, it’s a nod to one of the genre’s first great stars. In what must have been a studio choice, James Cagney stars as the troubled but talented silent era icon. The story begins with Chaney leaving vaudeville to work with a comedy duo while at the same time his wife, Cleva, informs him of her pregnancy. The heart of the story follows Lon and Cleva’s troubles as she craves the spotlight while neglecting to care for their son Creighton – who you might recognize by his eventual screen name, Lon Chaney Junior. The film does an excellent job relating the tale of a father who would do anything, and I mean anything, to provide and care for his son. It has been well documented the extremes to which Chaney would go to establish a particular look for a part, and it’s a shame most of today’s Hollywood is so pampered that we very rarely see that kind of determination and dedication to one’s craft.
Monster Squad (1987)
While kids my age were talking about Stand By Me or The Goonies being their favorite coming of age tale, I was busy wishing my own story involved battling the combined might of Universal’s classic monsters. If you’ve read almost any article of mine related to movies, you’ve probably noticed that I have a thing for Dracula, The Wolfman, and Frankenstein’s monster, so it should come as no surprise that this horror comedy is one of my favorites. Five teenagers stumble across a plot by Count Dracula to use his fellow monsters to steal an amulet that will open a portal and plunge the world into darkness. Of course, teen awkwardness ensues and the kids mess up Dracula’s plans and discover that yes, the wolfman does have nards! The special effects and cheesy dialogue leave the film feeling dated, but it’s a damn fun 90 minutes of adventure from my youth – more of a family friendly adventure than horror, to be honest, but definitely worth viewing this time of year.
Burnt Offerings (1976)
A fantastic haunted house story in the same vein as The Amityville Horror, where a vacationing family is drawn into both psychological and physical terror. Starring Karen Black, Oliver Reed, Bette Davis, and Burgess Meredith, this film had high box office hopes that for some reason never really caught on with audiences at the time. Reed steals the show as the husband and father that is the most combustible character, while Black plays the wife and mother that appears to be blinded by much of the goings-on. The pace is slow and methodical, with terrors that are subtle enough to draw you in and not let go for the duration of the film, and serves as a prime example that the horrors not seen on the screen are often greater than the ones that are. This is also another film with a twisted, uncomfortable ending that you might not see coming. A true psychological trip, which I highly recommended taking on a very dark evening with the lights out.
The Body Snatcher (1945)
Based on a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson and directed by Val Lewton, this black and white beauty is more about atmosphere and superb acting. Not all of the horror/suspense films of the 1940s are worth multiple viewings, but this one is definitely an exception, with Boris Karloff starring as John Gray, a less than reputable man who provides a local doctor with cadavers for various medical studies. The doctor (Henry Daniell) eventually finds himself in a moral conundrum with his secret business relationship with Gray. The acting is sharp and the film very atmospheric, but the real reason to watch this film is Karloff – many of his most famous roles had very little dialogue, but that’s not the case here, and we get to see much more of his range as a performer. Also worth noting is the fact that this film was the last time Karloff shared the screen with fellow horror icon Bela Lugosi. Their confrontation is more than worth the 77 minutes you’ll spend watching this classic. While it won’t give you nightmares, you might find yourself joined by the ghost of John Gray.
It’s not the original Godzilla and it’s not the original King Kong, but this nuclear war sci-fi monster film is still plenty of fun. When a little girl is found wandering a New Mexico desert in muted terror, the local sheriff finds her nearby home torn open with large tracks leaving the scene. It doesn’t take long for the sheriff to discover that the attack came from a nest of giant ants, whom appear to be migrating toward Los Angeles. The acting isn’t perfect and the story has more holes than Swiss cheese, but it’s hard not to enjoy this one. Aside from being in black and white, the pseudo-socially conscious attempt to make a statement about nuclear weapons really takes the viewer back to a bygone era. For a low budget film, the special effects are surprisingly good, especially considering that this one hit theater screen in the early 1950s. So if you have a bit of nostalgia for the black and white era and you love monster movies, give Them! a try, you won’t be disappointed.
The Birds (1963)
If Psycho is the only Alfred Hitchcock film you’re familiar with, then you’ve been missing out on some amazing horror and suspense offerings. The Birds is considered by many to be one of his best, and for good reason. Starring the absolutely gorgeous Tippi Hedren, the film follows an extremely wealthy woman who pursues a lawyer to the small California town of Bodega Bay. As with most of Hitchcock’s films, there are lots of twists and turns to get to the heart of the plot. What starts as a role reversal love story about a girl chasing the guy quickly becomes a fight for survival against a very pissed-off force of nature. Hedren completely drives this film with performance, pulling you into her sense of desperation and dedication to her would-be lover and his family, and the dangerous situation they soon find themselves in. Of course, Hitchcock provides a clinic on how to direct a suspense film, using everything at his disposal to get under the audience’s skin. This is essential viewing for any fan of the genre, and if you only watch one new horror/suspense film this Halloween season, make it The Birds!
While Lewton was involved with the film, it was as producer and not director, a title belonging to the legendary Robert Wise.